Tuesday, December 23, 2008


And so this is Christmas ...
Time again to decorate trees, give and receive gifts and watch the MY SO-CALLED LIFE Christmas episode (see last year's blog). Merry Christmas to all! I've included a few pics of our iconic modern heroes celebrating the holidays.
I saw a sign on a local church that said JESUS IS THE REASON FOR THE SEASON. But a lot of people who aren't Christians still honor the holidays. Christmas is really a secular holiday, and not because any atheists or agnostics have declared a "war on Christmas;" Christmas hasn't changed into a secular holiday ~ it always was. There are two big advantages in seeing it that way.
First, it is a celebration of a very real, non-mythological event, the Winter Solstice. It's the day (December 21 actually) that the Earth's orbit takes it farthest from the Sun. The Solstice has been celebrated since the dawn of time, not because it's the beginning of Winter or the coldest day of the year, but because it marks the end of our retreat from the Sun and the beginning of the end of the dark and cold. So that sign of the church is wrong: the season is the reason for the season; always has been and always will.
Second, we have a set of perfectly good secular myths in Santa Claus, Ebenezer Scrooge, the Grinch, Charlie Brown's Christmas tree, Frosty, Rudolph and all the rest. As I've said before, the best thing about these stories is that we love them, but we know they are not true. We don't hate, fight or discriminate over them. For a wonderful Christmas fable, watch
What Christmas means to most people, I think, is the spirit of sharing, of common humanity. We have that in common with the ancient pagans who huddled together in caves awaiting the end of Winter, and with everyone else. The seasons, represented by the Solstice, still affect us all and may so even more if environmental warnings are true. The caring, giving and sense of community are what's important about Christmas, certainly not whether you beleive in a holy man allegedly born this time of year. To divide over which myth to beleive in dishonors our distant ancestors and our brotherhood with each other. As Danielle complains in "So-Called Angels,"
"Why are we talking about religion? It's Christmas!"

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Sunshine Makers

People (well, geeks) have been comparing last night's election results to the explosion of the Death Star or the defeat of Sauron or Voldemort. I just found this cartoon online. My sister and I used to watch this on tv and go around singing the Sunshine song. It brings back a lot of nostalgia, but it also reflects how I feel about Obama's election. Hope this cheers you! Don't make me have to pour a bottle of sunshine down your throat!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Born on Krypton

Remember what I was saying about popular fiction becoming a new mythology? This guy realizes that our mythic heroes resonate with more people than even the country's major religion. A masterful way of connecting with everyday people that his opponents only wish they could acheive with their "Joe Six Pack" talk.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Origins of Dr Horrible

The blog's been on an unofficial hiatus. I've been off my sleep schedule and no energy for the last few weeks. Apologies to my loyal readers (both of them)...
Last time I talked about Joss Whedon's online musical DR HORRIBLE'S SING-A-LONG BLOG (still recommended).
Since then I've realized that there seem to be some references to comic book and literary figures in that story.
The ones that stand out the most (at least to a comic book geek like me) are Captain Marvel and his arch enemy Dr Sivana. Dr Sivana appeared in the earliest Captain Marvel stories in 1940 and continued to plague him throughout his career into the 50s. The physical resemblance is true in all respects but one. Sivana is short and wears a white lab coat and thick, bottle-bottom glasses. Dr Horrible at least seems shorter than his heroic nemesis Captain Hammer, wears a white lab coat - though unlike Sivana he sometimes wears normal clothes - and the goggles on top of his head are counterparts of Sivana's glasses.
Comic book characters wear costumes for reader identification. Even non-superheroes tend to apparently own one suit of clothes, like Archie, Dennis the Menace and Charlie Brown. Clark Kent usually wears the same blue suit. Costumes are coded to define characters: the white lab coat tells us that Drs Horrible and Sivana are mad scientists.
The one physical aspect where Horrible and Sivana differ is that Sivana was grotesquely ugly: misshapen bald head, bad teeth, crooked nose, stunted body. Sivana was the villain of the piece, not a leading man like Dr Horrible, and ugly is a comic book code for evil. The message was not that ugly is evil, but the opposite, evil is ugly. DICK TRACY's creator Chester Gould said that he drew villains like The Brow and Flattop ugly to reflect the ugliness of crime.
While Dr Horrible is obviously a supervillain name - I doubt he was christened "Billy Horrible" - Sivana was the character's real name. Sivana was like Superman's enemy Luthor, another lab-coated mad scientist, although they appeared nearly simultaneously in early 1940. The motif
was an evil genius with a sinister, foreign-sounding name.
In a twisted way Drs Sivana and Horrible's relationship with their heroic enemies is similar. From Sivana's point of view Captain Marvel was just an overgrown bully ("the Big Red Cheese") picking on Sivana and breaking all his toys. Dr Horrible feels the same about his arch-Captain, although in Hammer's case he is a bully. Dr Horrible's motives were good but bent, at least at first. He saw the wrongness in society and thought he could change the world for the better by ruling it. Sivana declared himself "Rightful Ruler of the Universe" by virtue of his genius, but he never had any inclinations to save society.
DHS-A-LB is an example of Joss Whedon's turning a stereotype on its ear. In BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER it was the blonde girl killing the monsters, in FIREFLY/SERENITY it was "bad guys" as heroes. Now we have the villain who wants to right wrongs versus the hero who only cares about himself.
The "benevolent villain" concept is rare but it has been used before. I don't mean rogue heroes like Robin Hood, Zorro or The Saint, but as far back as Jules Verne, whose Robur the Conquerer wanted to be Master of the World because he thought he could do a better job of it, and Captain Nemo who sank Navy ships to end wars. Their flaw was that they were ruthless about it and megalomanical enough to think they could save the world singlehanded.
Another similarity worth noting is that at one time Sivana was a member of The Monster Society of Evil - not a far cry from Dr Horrible's Evil League of Evil. Both groups had non-human leaders, the ELE's Bad Horse and the MSE's "bad worm," Mr Mind.
Dr Horrible's sidekick Moist is a parody of the type of character, seen most commonly in X-MEN, with a realatively obscure super power and a one-word code name. In place of flamboyant names like Wonderman or Mr Terrific and standard powers like strength or flying we have characters like Marrow, who uses bits of her bones as weapons, or Skin, with extra folds of stretchable skin. Moist with his ability to "make things damp," sounds more at home in the Legion of Substitute Heroes, heroes with powers too ineffectual for the Legion of Super Heroes - with Stone Boy (turns to stone but can't move) and Polar Boy (makes things chilly).
Captain Hammer is the archetypal superhero. He fits the mold of Superman the way he was originally conceived in the 30s: super-strong, possibly super-fast and invulnerable. We see no direct evidence of the last two, nor of flying. But the original Superman didn't fly, he leaped ("over a tall building in a single bound") and wasn't completely invulnerable ("nothing less than a bursting artillery shell can penetrate his skin.") Of couse the biggest difference is that Superman and Captain Marvel were nice guys. Captain Hammer is a jerk.
It's not that there are elements of older stories in DHS-A-LB that matters. STAR WARS borrowed heavily from old movie serials, Japanese Samurai movies and World War II dogfight movies but it was still a unique vision. So is DR HORRIBLE. There are no new stories. Genius isn't in inventing new ideas, its in building on and re-inventing the basics.
If you haven't seen it yet, it's still at Hulu.com or at http://www.drhorrible.com/

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Nothing Serious This Week

“Why do they always teach us that it’s easy and evil to do what we want … ? It’s the hardest thing in the world–to do what we want.” ~ Ayn Rand
... Just a link to a fun new web series. Look quick, because Act I is up now, Acts II and III are going up July 17 and 19, and it's only up till the 20th. Although I'm sure it will be back in some other form. This is what happens when a storytelling genius like Joss Whedon turns his talents toward evil.
I'm heading for I-Tunes to download a copy!
Then I'm headed for California for a two week vacation with my daughter!
UPDATE! The DHSAB site has crashed due to even higher volume of traffic than expected. It's being moved to a new server and should be available soon at

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

What Have You Done Lately?

“It's choice--not chance--that determines your destiny.” ~ Jean Nidetch

“It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” ~ J.K. Rowling

“There are always two choices. Two paths to take. One is easy. And its only reward is that it's easy.” ~ Unknown

"If you ask people what they've always wanted to do, most people haven't done it. That breaks my heart.” ~ Angelina Jolie

First: The book with my short story, "A Voice for Ivy" is now available for purchase or download from Wildcat Books at http://stores.lulu.com/wildcatbooks . LEGENDS OF THE GOLDEN AGE VOL I has comics reprints about two characters from the Golden Age of Comics, the early 1940s. Daredevil and the Black Terror are now in the public domain, so its legal to publish new stories with them. I tried to write some fight scenes in the style of the old comics, but I can't seem to resist adding some sort of a social issue to what I write. Daredevil was mute, so I figured a theme about Freedom of Speech was nicely ironic. I made it more so by having the hero faced with supporting free speech for someone whose cause he disagrees with.

Another book I worked on is also being published in paper form, although it has been available online http://scifi-world-eng.info/ for a few years. NEBULAR is a future history of the human race in space by a German group, and I help with the translations to English. Basically I try to turn the literal translations into something more like the way real people talk, and make the action flow more smoothly to American readers.

To more important things...

I just saw the movie WANTED with Angelina Jolie and Morgan Freeman, two of my favorite actors. The plot involves people born with special abilities to focus their minds so that they can curve bullets in flight and perform impossible fighting manuvers. They form a group of assassins, but assassins who kill people who will commit some great evil.

I was expecting a fast-moving action flick with little or no message, but I was wrong. The message, as delivered by Morgan Freeman's character Sloan, is key to this blog's whole thread about why myths, folklore and fiction are necessary. In fact, it's part of the message that I never addressed and one I need to apply to myself as well.

Stories like King Arthur, Cinderella, Tarzan, Superman, Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, Buffy the Vampire Slayer all have, as I've said, one thing in common. They tell us what we need to hear, that we may seem to be drab everyday mortals, we are all more than we know. We can seize the sword in the stone, inspire true love, leap over tall buildings, work magic, slay the evil Empire, dragons and vampires with the power we have hidden within us.

What I didn't say is, we have to decide to do so.

Sloan tells Wesley, "It is a choice, Wesley, that each of us must face: to remain ordinary, pathetic, beat-down, coasting through a miserable existence, like sheep herded by fate, or you can take control of your own destiny and join us, releasing the caged wolf you have inside."

Stories aren't meant only to be lulling, reassuring daydreams that we flee into after a hard day's reality. Fantasy stories are called "escape reading," but that's not the reason why. They aren't an alternative to real life, they are the key to unlocking the magic in us. We have the power to actually escape from mundane life but we have to choose to use it.

We have to choose our destiny.

As Wesley (excuse his French) puts in in the end:

"Six weeks ago I was ordinary and pathetic, just like you. Who am I now? Account manager? Assassin? Just another tool who was mind fucked into killing his father. I am all of these. I am none of these. Who am I now? This is not me fulfilling my destiny. This not me following in my fathers footsteps. This is definitely not me saving the world... This is me taking control, from Sloan, from the fraternity, from Janis, billing reports, ergonomic keyboards, from cheating girlfriends and sack of shit best friends. This is me taking back control of my life. What the fuck have you done lately?"

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

All that Matters

"In the greater scheme, in the bigger picture, nothing we do matters. There's no grand plan, no big win.

"If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do. Because that's all there is." ~Angel

Joss Whedon wrote that, and he is a genius.

I try to write this blog with non-geeks in mind so, Joss Whedon ... he's the creator/writer of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, ANGEL, FIREFLY and its movie spinoff SERENITY, and the upcoming tv series DOLLHOUSE. ANGEL's title character is a vampire with a soul (the dark, broody guy in the image up there). Through Angel's words Joss Whedon has managed to capture a philosophy that I've always had trouble explaining.

Several years ago there was an article in a newspaper about creationism vs evolution. The author's point was that anyone who didn't believe that we were created by a superior being could not possibly be a good or moral person because he had no authority to tell him good from bad. I took offense to this, of course, and replied with a letter to the editor saying that I'd rather be an ape who has improved himself than an angel who'd fallen.

This came up again when a young woman posted to the Witchvox site http://www.witchvox.com/ that she couldn't understand why pagans and atheists wouldn't accept that there was a loving, parental god who set down guidelines for good and evil and punished us when we strayed. I responded with my humanist view that we are perfectly capable of deciding right and wrong for ourselves. It took pages and, of course, she wasn't convinced.

But that's my take. It's reflected in the bottom line of the Witches' Rede, "an it harm none, do what thou will." The usual comeback is that letting people decide right and wrong for themselves leads to sociopaths, Nazis and serial killers. That is nonsense. Human beings know perfectly well what's right and wrong. Those that don't use that knowledge don't care or have a personality disorder.

The humanist concept is not popular because it is a scary one. It means that you are responsible for what you do, not Original Sin or the Devil or aliens, and you have to do what you know is right without a big parent watching over you. You have to do what's right even without punishment or rewards. Even when you know you can't win. Another ANGEL line says:

"Nothing in the world is the way it ought to be. - It's harsh, and cruel. - But that's why there's us. Champions. It doesn't matter where we come from, what we've done or suffered, or even if we make a difference. We live as though the world was what it should be, to show it what it can be."

If my spiritual philosophy is "there is great Mystery in the universe and we are all part of it," then "all that matters is what we do" is my moral philosophy.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Iron Man and the Buddha

"No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path. "

~ Buddha

“The real meaning of enlightenment is to gaze with undimmed eyes on all darkness.” ~ Nikos Kazantzakis

"I had my eyes opened. I came to realize that I had more to offer this world than just making things that blow up. And that is why, effective immediately, I am shutting down the weapons manufacturing division of Stark Industries. " ~ Tony Stark

Long time comics reader that I am, I was there when Iron Man first appeared in 1963. I just saw the movie and was pleased, and a little saddened, to see that -- except for changing the 60s Vietnam location to a more contemporary Afghanistan -- the story stuck to the original source mythology.

I left the show feeling a little sad when i remembered that Jack Kirby, the comics genius who created Iron Man -- and Spider-man, X-Men, the Hulk and more -- never lived to see his work made into multimillion dollar movies and become a part of our cultural awareness. Kirby used a lot of mythic ideas. He would have been pleased to know that his heroes are ingrained into modern mythic consciousness.

It wasn't until I saw the movie that I understood what myth Iron Man recalled. There are a lot of archetypal elements: on one level Iron Man is a knight in modern armor or the hero who is granted magical weapons. He's also the next step after Superman. If Hercules was stronger than anything manmade in his time, and John Henry outperformed early steam technology, and Superman overpowered modern technology, then Iron Man goes them one better. He owns the technology.

But there's one more myth that I was surprised to find in Iron Man. The story of the man behind the armor is the story of Buddha.

Buddha didn't wear jet-powered armor or fire missiles and repulsor rays, but compare the stories. Prince Siddhartha was raised in luxury and priveledge in a palace. He left the palace one day and saw all the suffering in the world. He became enlightened and built the philosophy of Buddhism to try and save the people. Tony Stark was raised in luxury as the heir to his father's fortune and a billionaire weapons manufacturer in his own right. He went to Afghanistan and and was captured by terrorists. He saw the suffering his weapons caused. He built an Iron Man suit and used it to help the victims of his weapons, redirecting Stark Industries to more peaceful pursuits.

I'll leave it to others to argue whether Buddha's teachings of freedom from desires or Stark's repulsors would be more effective.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008


"The goal which all the Vedas declare, which all austerities aim at, and which men desire when they lead the life of continence … is Om. This syllable Om is indeed Brahman. Whosoever knows this syllable obtains all that he desires. This is the best support; this is the highest support. Whosoever knows this support is adored in the world of Brahma." ~ Katha Upanishad I
“Ten or twenty billion years ago, something happened — the Big Bang, the event that began our universe. Why it happened is the greatest mystery we know. That it happened is reasonably clear. All the matter and energy now in the universe was concentrated at extremely high density — a kind of cosmic egg, reminiscent of the creation myths of many cultures — perhaps into a mathematical point
with no dimensions at all ... in that titanic cosmic explosion, the universe began an expansion which has never ceased." ~ Carl Sagan, COSMOS
“Incidentally, disturbance from cosmic background radiation is something we have all experienced. Tune your television to any channel it doesn't receive, and about 1 percent of the dancing static you see is accounted for by this ancient remnant of the Big Bang. The next time you complain that there is nothing on, remember that you can always watch the birth of the universe.” ~ Bill Bryson
The sound Om, or Aum, means different things in different cultures. In Vedanta, it symbolizes All. The sound, beginning with the mouth open and ending with it closed, contains all sounds. There is more to it than that, but even what I am about to describe is the tip of the iceberg.
Vastly oversimplified, the first part, Ao, represents the physical universe ... that which we call matter, from our bodies to the stars. The middle part, uu, represents the universe of the mind or the imagination, which is as much a part of the universe of awareness as the physical. It is not incorrect to say that our stories are as real as the physical world. The third, um, is the unconscious world. Again, the nothingness that we experience when we are unconscious is as real as the universe we can touch or dream of. Aum is the entire universe contained within our awareness. (1)
If you think of it that way, it resembles the cosmic egg Carl Sagan talks about. That's the first point where Eastern spirituality and quantum physics seem to blend. The universe started expanding with the Big Bang and, if conditions are right, it may eventually contract back into its original single-point cosmic egg state. It could repeat the cycle of expansion and contraction eternally.
To me it seems like a nice visualization for meditation. As you imagine the air expanding out of your body, then being inhaled back in, to the accompaniment of Aum, it is almost like a miniature version of creation and uncreation, cycling throughout eternity.
Not a bad metaphor.
(1) In more Western terms, Anais Nin wrote, “There is not one big cosmic meaning for all, there is only the meaning we each give to our life, an individual meaning, an individual plot, like an individual novel, a book for each person.”

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Daredevil and the Green Lama

"Only when the mind is settled can it become quiet.Only when the mind is quiet can it become still.Only when the mind is still can it see.And only when the mind can see,Can it reach the mystery of mysteries."
~Yen Ch'eng

"Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless - like water. Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup, you put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle, you put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.” ~ Bruce Lee

"The most profound discoveries are not necessarily beyond that next star. They're within us, woven into the threads that bind us." ~ Captain Jonathan Archer, STAR TREK ENTERPRISE

I'm about to be a published writer! Wildcat Books has accepted my short story "A Voice for Ivy" for their anthology LEGENDS OF THE GOLDEN AGE VOL 1 due out later this month. It's a collection of stories about superheroes from the 1940s who are now in the public domain as far as copyright. Mine is about Daredevil; not the current Marvel Comics hero of the Ben Affleck movie, but a character by the same name from a defunct publisher, Lev Gleason. Daredevil, at least in his early stories, was mute. I tried to write fight scenes that read like a 40s comic book but then added some characterization and moral issues.

I promised to talk about Eastern spirituality and its relationship to quantum physics and stories. I'm going to start with something light, techniques for meditation. The seeds of much deeper concepts are planted here.


Before you begin a mental effort, such as taking a test, it is good to clear your mind. Just as you can recall where you put something as soon as you stop looking for it, blanking your conscious mind frees the knowledge you need to well to the surface of your mind.

Blanking your mind is as simple as taking a few seconds to think of nothing at all. On a test I do this by focusing on a blank spot on the paper, or on the wall.

Zen Buddhists use sayings called koans. A koan is a question that has no answer. They believe that by concentrating on a koan the chain of logical thought is broken and the mind reaches a clearer level. The two most well known koans are:

What is the sound of one hand clapping?

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it still make a sound?

Freeing your mind to let the answers appear naturally is far more effective than any amount of last minute cramming or worrying.


There are several. Some people use a candle to lose themselves in the wavering flame.

Some experts say that you should use the word “Om” or "Aum." “Om” means many things in different aspects of Eastern thought; “Hail!” in Tibetan, from the chant “Om! Mani Padme Hum!” – “Hail the jewel in the lotus flower.” In keeping with the comic book geek theme of my blog, it should also be noted that the 1940s hero Jethro Dumont used the phrase as magic words to transform himself into the Green Lama. “Om” is also supposed to be significant because the word starts with the mouth open and ends with the mouth closed, so that it includes all sounds. The actual meaning of Om is way deeper, so I'll go into that next blog.

There is the koan. A riddle that makes no sense and has no answer. It is used to derail the train of conscious thought.

Use what works best for you. Remember the end you want is serenity, not effort. I tend to use none of the aids. That’s because I end up concentrating on the aid instead of the serenity.


Sit comfortably. You don’t need to assume any complicated lotus position with your legs tied in a knot. Just what is comfortable, but not comfortable enough to fall asleep.

Steady your breathing. Focus your concentration on your breath. Don’t try to control it. Just observe it. Follow your breaths from your nostrils to your lungs and back from your lungs to your nostrils. You may imagine a cloud of air just beyond your nose. Your breath will fall into a natural rythym. Just observe and let it do so.

Treat any distractions the same way. If you have an itch, observe the itch. If you have an urge to scratch the itch, observe the urge. If you have stray distracting thoughts, observe them and let them pass by. A friend of my cousin used to "entertain" distractions by imagining placing them in a room with snacks, magazines and a tv and leaving them alone there.

Observe as your whole body relaxes but see your body, breath, itches, urges and distractions as one.

The next step is the hard one. Observing your body, breath, itches, urges and distractions, now step back and observe the You that is observing you!
By Sri Chinmoy:
Nothing impresses me any more,save and except
My own deep meditations.

Meditation stops
The sound-loving mind.

To my greatest relief,I have silenced
My questioning mind.

When I pray,
I feel I am tiny,very tiny.

When I meditate,
I feel I am vast,very vast.

When I contemplate,
I feel I am neither tiny nor vast -I am just a playerWho plays hide and seek with God.

When I pray,I clearly see that God is coming down
From Above.

When I meditate,I clearly see that God is already seated
Inside my heart.

My Lord,When I most intensely pray and meditate,The world badly misunderstands me.My Lord, what shall I do?
"My child, you have only one world,And that world is all love.It needs neither understanding
Nor misunderstanding."

When we pray and meditate
Sincerely and soulfully,
We receive an open-hearted invitationFrom Heaven.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Edgers, Thinkers and Grubbers

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." ~ Margaret Mead

"Look at these people, these human beings; consider their potential! From the day they arrive on the planet, blinking, step into the sun, there is more to see than can ever be seen, more to do than- no, hold on. Sorry, that's The Lion King." ~ Doctor Who

I'm reading a collection of sf stories by Charles Sheffield, about his characters McAndrew and Captain Jeanie Roker.(1) McAndrew is an Einstein level physicist whose mind is only happy when he's solving abstract problems; Roker is a spaceship captain who gets involved in his adventures, usually handling the action and the human viewpoint. The stories are set about a century from now, mostly in the Solar system and its outskirts. Space habitats, controlled black hole spaceship drives, asteroid mining and off-planet food production are commonplace. In one sense, the stories are what used to be popular in the 50s and 60s as "sf problem stories," today known as "hard sf" ... where the resolution of the story hinges on solving a scientific problem. Such stories can be fun as well as an excellent way to explain a complex scientific idea in simple words. Hard sf is one subgenre of science fiction, while space fantasy like STAR WARS is the opposite.

One of Roker's observations struck me as a pretty simple explanation for the state of the world. In "The Invariants of Nature," she says "Go back fifty thousand years, to a time when most of us were just grubbing along, looking for a decent bush of ripe berries or a fresher lump of meat. A few, like McAndrew, were busy inventing langauge or numbers, or painting the walls of the cave. And some, just a handful, were seeking an edge over the rest of us: Water access, or mating rules, or restricted entry to heaven."

Extrapolating from there, the handful took their edge by creating classes, governments, militaries and religions and now they rule the world. As I've said in previous posts, I still beleive that most of us want just to get along peacefully and enjoy life; hence my love of the Middle Eastern comic books that show that people everywhere have the same values.(2) Wars and race, class, sexuality, and religious hatreds are all lies hyped by the Edgers. Lies like, that religion is Satan, we should exterminate that people because they're plotting against us, we have to invade them before they get us, on and on.

How the heck did this happen? The Edgers should have been put in their place early, like unruly children - but they took over by threats, scare tactics, lies and just plain strongarming. The Thinkers were too involved in abstract ideas to notice. The Grubbers partly fell for the lies, but mostly they wanted peace and quiet too dearly to take arms against the Edgers. From time to time Mead's small committed groups have forced change (the Magna Carta, the US Constitution, the Emancipation Proclamation, Women's Suffrage and Civil Rights), but the world is still lorded over by kings and generals and reverends and ayatollahs and executives who use the Thinkers to craft weapons and Grubbers to do their dirty work.

Bit of a rant there, but I will admit that I'm a 60s hippie at heart (even though I'm also a grubber who joined the Air Force because it was safer than the Army). I like to ask silly questions, like why can't we accept that all religions are true at heart? Why should corporate heads make more money than the people who do the real work? Why aren't the people who talk about race hatred, nuclear war and "the coming resource wars," and what God tells them to do, in treatment instead of ruling the rest of us?

That must be why we like stories about characters who are beyond the reach of society so well.(3) Robin Hood, Tarzan, Superman, The Saint, The Spirit, Doctor Who, SERENITY ... Notice how these heroes operate. They tend to go about their business, but do good, help others and fight evil when its needed. None of them is interested in getting an "edge" on anybody. They wouldn't rule the world if they could, not even to force their version of rightness on it. Superman and his like could cure all the ills of the world in a day, but that would make them too much like the villains they fight. Dictators and religious fanatics and bigots think they're right too.

In a way it comes down to the Golden Rule, or the Wiccan Rede:

" ... Live you must and let to live, fairly take and fairly give ... These Eight words the Rede fulfill: An Ye Harm None, Do What Ye Will"

(1) THE COMPLEAT MCANDREW, Baen Books, 2000.(2) In the City of All Faiths, Dec 11 2007.(3) The Nature of Freedom, Nov 6, 2007

Sunday, March 23, 2008

What I'm Reading and Watching

I'm taking this week to review some books and movies I've seen or read recently. They all seem to have some sort of a mythological slant.

INTO THE GREEN, Charles de Lint, Tor Books 1993

De Lint is a writer of fantasy, a musician and a Celtic folklorist who tells stories set the Green Isles; very like, but not quite, Celtic Ireland. His people's, places' and gods' names may not be authentic but they sound right. A lot of the lore isn't authentic either but it feels like it could be. The heroine, Angharad, is witch, tinker and harpist. She is Summerborn, gifted by the gods of the Green with the Summerblood's magic. In her time the green is losing its power as belief in magic fades, part of Angharad's task is to remind people of the old ways. As lovely as all this sounds, de Lint is also adept at creating nastiness to oppose his characters. Witch-finders, who sell witches' fingerbones (after all, the magic lies in their fingers when they wave them to cast spells or pluck harp strings), street urchins who think they can sell Angharad to a "hussyhouse," and the glascrow - a sinister puzzle box that seeks to corrupt and destroy the Summerblood and the Green. Her task isn't easy; her witchy powers are weak as belief ebbs, her ally Lammond may have dark motives of his own and Tom Naghatty is crippled not so much by a lost eye and a lamed leg as by self-doubt and recriminations. The novel is a wonderful tale of the power of belief ... in magic, in mystery and in yourself, that leaves me itching to read one of de Lint's modern day urban fantasies.

DAN DARE #1-3, Garth Ennis, Virgin Comics 2007-8

Virgin is the comics publisher that produces a fine line of comics by artists and writers from India: THE SADHU, DEVI, SNAKEWOMAN. They've expanded to include more Western based comics. Dan Dare has been an icon of British boys' comic papers since 1950. Dan and his buddy Digby saved the Earth from menaces like the evil Mekon time and again. The new series by writer Garth Ennis picks up a retired Dan Dare who is still a legend in the Space Fleet, living on an asteroid hologrammed to look like a British country estate. The Mekon is invading again and Dare's services are needed. Matters on Earth have deteriorated, the Prime Minister seems to be in league with the Mekon, the Space Fleet is vastly outnumbered and outgunned and many of its officers are only concerned for their careers with no taste for fighting. By the end of issue 3, Dare's people find themselves in a pretty hopeless situation defending colonists on the ground from an overwhelming enemy force. The bleak outlook has taken some criticism from old fans, but I am enjoying it. I'm usually first to gripe when writers try to make classic heroes darker and grimmer. I think that the assassination of JFK and events like Vietnam, Watergate and 9-11 have led us to believe that good guys die young, heroes can't be trusted and you have to be meaner than the bad guys to survive, and our myths and stories are being twisted to reflect that. That means that heroes can't do good just because it's right, they have to be obsessed or otherwise put themselves first. Heroes commit acts that are out of character and morally wrong (like Wonder Woman killing and the Justice League "lobotomizing" villains). But in this case, Dan Dare remains the hero he always was. He deals with the new climate cooly (as when he tells officers who want to abandon the colony to leave their uniforms behind because they are no longer members of Space Fleet) and faces the odds as they come. I like seeing how his leadership inspires younger officers to a heroism that we can all of us own. It's a good example of the quote from Joss Whedon's ANGEL:

"Nothing in the world is the way it ought to be. It's harsh, and cruel, but that's why there's us. Champions. It doesn't matter where we come from, or what we've done, or suffered, or even if we make a difference. We live as though the world were as it should be. To show it what it can be."

JUMPER, Regency Films/20th Century Fox, 2008

JUMPER is a well done SF action movie. Like most good science fiction it takes a single premise and runs with it. In this case it is the classic SF idea that extreme danger can cause the mind to do the impossible to escape. This isn't new to science fiction; Alfred Bester used in THE STARS MY DESTINATION in 1953, and it's based on urban legends of the mother who lifted a car to save her trapped child. JUMPER gives it some new twists. David, the hero, is drowning when he suddenly teleports himself into the public library - along with a lot of water. When he jumps in, there is a small whoosh: the kinetic energy that you would use up in walking is released in one burst, and the air that was in the spot he materialized in is displaced. Jumpers can also teleport what they're touching or the vehicles they're in - which makes for a really wild car chase scene. David discovery that he is more than he knew reflects the ancient King Arthur/Luke Skywalker myth, but he never quite becomes a hero. He robs banks without opening doors and lives his own lifestyle visiting places like Paris, Rome and Egypt in a single day. But he's not a villain; he was still a kid with a kid's sense of morality when his power set him apart from everybody else on the planet. Well, almost everybody: there have been other jumpers, and a quasi-religious organization has been formed to hunt and kill them. "Only God should have the power to be everywhere at once." The Paladins have weapons that can prevent jumpers from jumping, and if you think Samuel L Jackson makes a scary good guy, he makes a really scary bad guy. I've heard that the book by Stephen Gould the movie is based on is very different; David is the only jumper. I'll probably read the book and review it later.

REAPER, CW Network, Tuesday 9/8c pm, 2007-8

Sam is a young man who works two jobs - as a stocker at the Tool Shed and as the Devil's bounty hunter. It's not his fault, his parents were tricked into selling his services, if not his soul, to the Devil before he was born, but it does give a new take on the Arthur/Skywalker legend. He's still basically a hero: he collects evil souls who have escaped from Hell (with super powers, to go on killing sprees on Earth). Ray Wise gives the best performance of the Devil ever, smooth and seemingly caring but just as slimy and oily as you'd expect. All the cast give great performances, especially Tyler Sabine as Sam's ultimate slacker pal Bert "Sock" Wysocki, and there are plenty of mysteries to keep us coming back. Is the Get Out of Hell Free card real or one of the Devil's tricks? What was on the page that Sam's dad tore out of his contract and burned? Is the new girl in Sam's life really the Devil's daughter? Loveable characters (yes, even the Devil), comedy, action subplots and the supernatural should have made this series a runaway hit. I'm surprised how few people have heard of it.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Misusing Myth, II

I WANT TO BELIEVE ~ poster on Fox Mulder's wall in THE X-FILES

“What are the facts? Again and again and again--what are the facts? Shun wishful thinking, ignore divine revelation, forget what "the stars foretell," avoid opinion, care not what the neighbors think, never mind the unguessable "verdict of history"--what are the facts, and to how many decimal places? You pilot always into an unknown future; facts are your single clue. Get the facts!" ~ Robert A Heinlein, THE NOTEBOOKS OF LAZARUS LONG

"In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order. " ~ Carl Jung

I used to teach a course on UFOlogy for the Wichita Free University. I presented it in two sessions: the believers stories and the skeptics. I found that the believers, while accusing skeptics of being close minded, never showed up for the debunking session. This is something that UFOlogists have in common, and they share it with other believers, like religious fundamentalists and Bush supporters. They tend to ignore whatever doesn’t fit their mythology.

For example, UFOlogists tout the Barney and Betty Hill alien abduction case while ignoring the fact that the psychiatrist who brought out their repressed memories stated flatly that these were not real memories. The British crop circles and the Gulf Breeze sightings are still a big part of the lore despite the perpetrators being caught red-handed at their hoaxes. The Roswell incident has many witnesses but no one points out that none of them can agree on the date, the site or the number, if any, of alien bodies.

A friend sent me a posting she received from a religious group about the discovery of the Red Square Nebula. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2007/04/070412-square-nebula.html

The nebula is perfectly symmetrical, so much that it almost resembles a crystal. They suggest that the nebula is the "approaching City of God," based on Revelation 21:16, "And the city lieth foursquare, and the length is as large as the breadth: and he measured the city with the reed, twelve thousand furlongs. The length and the breadth and the height of it are equal" and 20-10,"And he carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and shewed me that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God, having the glory of God: and her light was like unto a stone most precious, even like a jasper stone, clear as crystal." Since it is red, the post says, the red shift indicates it is approaching.

My friend asked my opinion. In this case, there is one fact that fits the City of God: the nebula is symmetrical. The facts that don’t fit are:

1. The Biblical quote clearly states that the City of God is twelve thousand furlongs on a side. That equals about 1300-1400 miles. Nebulae are hundreds of light years across. One light year equals 5,865,696,000,000 miles. So according to the Bible itself the nebula is about a zillion times too big to be the City.

2. A nebula is a cloud of gas from an exploded star. A cloud of gas is not a city.

3. Sorry, red shift means going away, not approaching. There is no evidence that the nebula is approaching the Earth. It has only recently been observed because our instruments weren’t good enough before now.

4. There are several scientific theories presented in the article that explain the nebula’s shape. A crystal is a natural formation, not a miracle.

Point 1 invokes Doctor Zen’s rule: if you take something literally, it has to all be literal: you can’t pick and choose. If the shape is literal, the size must be too. If you tell me part of it is metaphorical, then I can say it’s all metaphorical.

Back to UFOs, if you haven’t read WATCH THE SKIES!, Curtis Peebles brilliant dissection of UFOs as myth, I highly recommend it. http://www.amazon.com/WATCH-SKIES-PEEBLES-CURTIS/dp/1560983434

It is also interesting how closely the UFO mythology follows popular fiction. In a 1930 Buck Rogers comic strip, Buck's girlfriend Wilma Deering is taken aboard a spaceship by aliens with large heads and eyes, subjected to a physical examination and released; almost the prototype for the recent alien abduction stories. More of the groundwork was laid in 1950s movies like KILLERS FROM SPACE with abuctees memories being replaced, mysterious scars from alien implants, and memories of big disembodied eyes. Barney Hill's initial description of the aliens (before he changed his story to match his wife's) was an exact description of the "The Galaxy Being" from an OUTER LMITS episode he had just seen. People who claimed to have been taken into alien craft through the 60s reported walking up ramps similar to the ones in 50s flying saucer movies. After STAR TREK, they report being "beamed" aboard.

UFOlogists also use false logic a lot. Some points to remember: The possibility of other intelligent life out there in our galaxy does not prove they're down here or that they kidnapped your Uncle Bob last weekend. Just because a witness could not identify what he saw, that doesn't prove it was alien or a spacecraft. Being unable to prove that something isn't real doesn't make it real. Ask Carl Sagan about the invisible dragon in his garage, or try to disprove Santa Claus.

Some of the writers of books about things like UFOs, the End Times and other subjects like witch cults and Satanists are probably just making a quick buck. But what about the believers? Some, abductees and investigators alike, may live on the attention they get. Alpha-Girl at pinkraygun.com suggests that "for UFO believers and religious fundamentalists, I wonder how much of that tendency is due to needing to be right vs. needing to know there’s something other than our current state, whether it’s as God’s children on Earth or as the only known intelligence (or what passes for it) in the universe."

John Keel used to write books about things like UFOs, Bigfoot and such phenomena and he had a very interesting theory. He wondered whether such manifestations, leaving no physical evidence, were the universe's way of telling us something. The cool thing about this theory is that it works whether these are physical manifestations, hallucinations or imagination. We know from the common archetypes in stories that human minds can connect with images in the subconscious that have deep meanings for all people. Carl Jung suggested this in FLYING SAUCERS: A MODERN MYTH OF THINGS SEEN IN THE SKY. He wrote that such visions may be common in an era where humankind has its fate in its hands, and faces extinction. UFO aliens seem to warn us about dangers we already know about, like atomic bombs in the 50s and global warming now. The link between such visions and dreams and stories is a deep one, and it goes both ways. The pattern of alien abductions matches age old stories of meetings with elves, faeries and demons. John Ankerberg wrote that "the UFO phenomenon simply does not behave like extraterrestrial visitors. It actually molds itself in order to fit a given culture."

UFOs may not be aliens or even the universe speaking to us, but our own subconscious. As Jung said, "Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes."

Monday, February 25, 2008

Misusing Myth, I

“Stereotypes are devices for saving a biased person the trouble of learning” ~ Anonymous

" ... the Cold War was not some naturally occurring phenomenon but was created by U.S. policymakers in large part for the purpose of keeping a lid on social change ... " ~ Robert Jensen

"The twelve labors of Hercules were trifling in comparison with those which (political pundits and tabloid journalists) have undertaken; for they were only twelve, and had an end; but I could never see that these men slew or captured any monster or finished any labor." ~ Henry David Thoreau

The image above is what Japanese people looked like during World war II - at least if you read American comic books. Comic books were one of the worst offenders for racial stereotyping back then. Japanese had bright yellow-orange skin, long fangs and claws... and were usually being killed by handsome American heroes like Airboy (pilot of Birdie, the only plane that flapped her wings). Chinese looked similar, only without the fangs and with huge buck teeth. It wasn't just pictures: one story had Japanese agents recruiting circus freaks to their cause because "the Japs are a race of freaks themselves." But it's one thing to use demons to symbolize the evils of Nazism or Japanese imperialism and quite another to depict a people as demons. Heroes like Captain America, The Patriot, USA, Captain Flag, V( for Victory)-Man and their like were wonderful morale boosters for Americans, but drawing "Japs" as monsters didn't promote peaceful understanding... any more than cartoons of "camel jockeys" help it now.

Like anything empowering, myths and stories can be misused, even abused. One of the worst examples is when stories go from archetypes to stereotypes. The lazy, cowardly Black, the inscutable Oriental, the greedy Jew, the helpless heroine and the effeminate gay man pop up in a lot of War-era fiction and beyond in a vicious circle: the stereotypes appear because people believed them and the stories reinforce the belief. Modern versions that sound more positive, like the streetwise Black, the kung-fu Asian, the sensitive gay and the man-hating feminist are just as bad because they're stereotypes. They feed the delusion that all members of a social group are the same, not individuals, and this can lead to real evils from profiling to genocide.

Stereotyping is only one way myth can be misused. I've talked about how believing in myths literally leads to the kind of hatred preached by fundamentalist religions from evangelical Christians to Islamic Jihadists.

People can use myths wrongheadedly to promote their own causes. Detractors of Barack Obama who call him "two-faced" like "the Roman god Janus" or warn of his Islamic leanings because his name means the winged horse (El Buraq) that Mohammed rode to Heaven have unknowingly given him pretty solid symbolic endorsements. Janus, as the Presidential Geek Survey at pinkraygun.com points out, represented not forgetting the past while looking ahead to the future. And El Buraq was a winged steed who brought people to paradise. It even represents a healing of religious wounds: on his arrival Mohammed was blessed by Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, Moses and Jesus, and welcomed as their equal. (1)

Bush supporters who tried to paint him as Frodo or the Lone Ranger miss the point so far that they're laughable. The Lone Ranger never answered an Indian raid by wiping out their tribe (or, as with Bush, the wrong tribe, because they had silver mines he wanted). IMHO Bush is more like Sauron than Frodo. There's a fascinating take on THE LORD OF THE RINGS and American politics at http://www.windweaver.com/politics/lordrings.htm making the point that Frodo's real battle was with his own dark side tempted by the Ring than with Mordor. Which is what myths are really all about anyway.

There are also people who will create a mythology and perpetrate it. These include groups from politicians to UFO believers to tabloid journalists to so-called prophets. I used to teach a Wichita Free University course in UFOlogy, and many of these diverse groups use a lot of techniques in common. UFOlogists will be discussed here in more detail later, because their mythology borrows from stories in popular fiction. What were Iraq's weapons of mass destruction but a created myth? Tabloids live by feeding us myths of the rich and famous

I'll get more into "creative myth," UFOs and such in Misusing Myth II.

(1) And the latest in their line of prophets: which reminds my geek side of “Into each generation a slayer is born ... a Chosen One. One born with the strength and skill to hunt the vampires, to stop the spread of evil.”

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Follow Your Bliss

"If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in your field of bliss, and they open doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don't be afraid, and doors will open where you didn't know they were going to be." ~ Joseph Campbell

“Always, always, always, always, always, always, always do the thing you fear and the death of fear is certain.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Michelle Lombardo, actress on the excellent QUARTERLIFE series (see Link, but be careful... watch a few episodes and you'll be in love with all the characters and have to watch all 29 --to date-- episodes) says in her blog, "Our generation... you know, all of us.. are at this point right now where we can really change what's going on right now in the world... " I wish her all the best, but at my age this is about the fifth generation I've heard say that. From JFK's Camelot and the Flower Children to today. The world hasn't changed much, except technologically.

We still betray everything our dreams and our stories tell us. We teach children not to resolve conflicts with fighting, but when we are attacked, our leaders respond immediately with war. (Yes, 9-11 was a horrible act - but if our values don't hold up under stress they are utterly useless!) The rich still trample the rest of us in their singleminded drive for power, control and short term profit. We still waste the planet and ignore how that will affect us all.
(Well, our government is not ignoring climate change. The Pentagon has detailed plans for fighting over the last remaining resources. http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Oil_watch/ComingResourceWars.html Nothing about preventing climate change, or working with other nations if worse comes to worst, just war as usual. Even the Klingons are smarter than that: "Only a fool fights in a burning house.")

The difference this time is that we may be one of the last few generations who still have a chance to change. It may be too late to reverse the damage to the environment or avert nuclear disaster or stop endless war once it gets rolling.

The blog has been missing for a couple weeks because I've been re-evaluating my life. I'm tired of working for minimal pay so that corporations can make money. I've probably reached a phase Indian philosophy calls Serving.
There are four stages in life. Learning, Earning, Serving and Seeking. Serving is about using what you've learned and earned to make you family comfortable and secure. Not just your blood family, but the world family.
I'm looking for a job that will allow me to serve or help people in some measure. Maybe even something that will help turn the tide of the world's rush toward self-destruction.I was not too good with the Earning part so I'd like it to pay the rent as well. Anybody knows of such activist employment, I'm open to suggestions.

I'm not happy with what I'm doing right now, but it's scary to quit a job that is keeping a roof over my head. Of course the only way to deal with that is to follow the advice of Goethe:

"Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it."

And, of course, Yoda said, "Do or do not. There is no try."

I think there's a measure of the fourth stage at work, too. Seeking, Samadhi, is about understanding yourself. Finding out what I am all about, what my part is in the big Mystery.
Robert A Heinlein's immortal man Lazarus Long wrote, "If tempted by something that feels "altruistic," examine your motives and root out that self-deception. Then, if you still want to do it, wallow in it! "

Maybe I just have a repressed desire to be a superhero.

The character in the image is Maggie (Magdelena Marie Neuntauben, superhero name Veda, forms humanoids out of solid earth to do her bidding) in a comic book called THE ORDER. She's talking about how helping individual children is the real way to save the world.

BABYLON 5 had a recurring theme about two questions we ask ourselves. "Who are you?" and "What do you want?" What was important was the order in which you asked those questions. If "What do you want?" comes first, you will never find answers. If "Who are you?" comes first, everything else including the answer to the second question, will come naturally.

There's another Indian saying that goes:

"The path we choose is who we are."

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Facing the Reaper

"You get what everyone gets. You get a lifetime." ~ Death, THE SANDMAN, "The Sound of Her Wings" by Neil Gaiman.

I faced my mortality in a new way last night. The character I role played in our Dungeons and Dragons game died.

I turned 60 last October. I have a slightly enlarged heart, which is not life-threatening but does cause high blood pressure. Roulette has me on a low sodium diet because sodium causes water retention which exacerbates HBP. I need to exercise more, as fat shoving against organs and heart also raises blood pressure. That diagnosis didn't affect me much. Even the passing of Luta's brother didn't hit home as far as my own mortality was concerned. It took the death of an imaginary character to do that.

You have to understand, the way most RPGers play it's search the dungeon, kill the monster, find the treasure, repeat. Our amazingly talented and inventive DM (1) Orryn calls that a dungeon crawl, or Orc-and-pie (2), and when we role play, we role play. We create backstories and personalities for our characters. I played Taryn Darkeyes, girl thief (3) and tomb raider.

Here's Taryn's story:

"Mellisande Flesk was born to a wealthy family of Alchemists, a bright, blonde and black-eyed child. As is so often the case, prosperity was no guarantee of happiness. Mellisande's mother was narcissistic, self-absorbed and more concerned with her rank, social standing and money than with her three children. Her father disappeared when she was eight. Her older brother had become reclusive and secretive.

"Mellisande despised her father and her brother as weaklings. The only person she cared anything for was her little sister Kylie, although even they were never close. At age 15 she pilfered some of her brother's necromantic artifacts and scrolls and sold them to a sorcerers' guild. She stashed most of her profits in a cave known only to her.

"When Mellisande was 17, Kylie was struck with a wasting illness. She half suspected it was brought on by neglect and depression, but she returned to her cave, took some of her loot and bought rare medicines for Kylie. These she presented to her mother, who at the time was planning to attend a gala festival in a distant kingdom, and was intent on debuting her coming-of-age daughter there. Mellisande wanted nothing to do with it. She hid out in her cave. After one month, she returned home. She found that her younger sister had died. Her mother, absorbed by her plans for the festival, had never given Kylie the medications.

"Mellisande knew she could not stay there another minute. She helped herself to a few sacksful of the family riches and left for good.

"No sooner had she reached the nearest city than she was set upon by a local gang, beaten and robbed of all but the profits she had stashed in her cave. She limped back to the cave to heal. She lived two years in the wood, leaving her cave only for occasional forays for supplies. She picked up a few wilderness skills and learned to be self sufficient. Finally she went to the city to live as a street thief. After several run-ins with the law, she apprenticed herself to a local thief. In her spare time she learned to appraise magical relics for their resale value, and changed her name and looks.

"Mellisande was now Taryn Darkeyes, and she used one of her father's potions to permanently dye her yellow hair black. By age 25 she has travelled far from her erstwhile home. Taryn specializes in stealing and reselling magical artifacts. She carries several weapons she uses to intimidate bigger, stronger foes -- not to say that she isn't good at using them as well. She is resolved to be tougher than anyone she knew and to survive at all costs.

"She has no use for laws, loyalties or morals. Taryn worships no gods. The only ones she has any respect for are gods who represent nature and travel."

I gave her a pretty miserable life.She started the game as a bitter and lonely person, joined the adventurers' party in hopes of earning enough money and finding enough salable magic items to retire away from the world. My eventual plans were to retire her after the adventure as a druid, at peace in the forest.

She died in a battle suddenly and unexpectedly, taking cold damage from monsters called frostshades, fell unconscious and failed the final dice throw. She never even got to say any sarcastic last words.

We have a board at Prismatic Tsunami where we post in character. I wrote down her imaginary last words. I didn't expect to publish another fiction piece so soon after last week's but I'll let you read it. Remember Taryn is as much an atheist as you can be in a world where the gods are real.
So, I'm dead. Didn't see that coming.

Where am I? It looks like an endless plane of ash, flat, no mountain, hill or crevice as far as I can see. No stars in the sky. Nothing moving; nothing here to move. Is this where you go when you've abandoned all the gods, the ones who punish and those who comfort?

All I ever wanted out of death was rest.

What am I? A shade, an immortal soul, the last sparks of thought in a dying brain?

Don't know how the gang's gonna make it without me. Ah, who am I kidding? Ji will get them through. He's the only one who believes in something besides himself, er, herself. Arathorn, despite his delusion that he's the boss of us, is a survivor. Arathorn. We never liked each other,yet it was Arathorn who carried my body out and did his best to revive me. Ulfgar can blunder through anything and Aust will never get close enough to peril to be in real danger.

They'd better miss me, though.

Hell, I'll miss me.

I hope they can use my magic stash. Well of course they will. That bunch'll loot my body before it's cold.

Cold. That's odd. I died of cold but I don't feel cold now. I don't feel anything.

What's that over there?

Is that -


Farewell, Taryn.

It wasn't till I composed that piece that it hit me how close to being me Taryn was. I went to bed last night, started to compose Taryn's post, and could not sleep for tears.

When I fail my final dice roll, it'll probably be like hers - never knowing what hit me. It occurs to me that if I don't get any last words in I'd better let my friends and family know now how much I love and respect them, and that I'm happy with my life here and now.

It's not silly to me mourning a make believe character, because I don't think she's the only one I'm mourning.

What did Taryn see?

Could have been anything, an eddy in the ash, a tear in her eye, oblivion roaring in, a god, a soul-devouring monster, or Kylie. I'm not telling because I don't know. God or an afterlife may be in doubt, but I believe there is always Mystery.

As Heinlein said in THE NOTEBOOKS OF LAZARUS LONG: "Soon enough you will know."

(1) Dungeon Master, the person who runs the game.
(2) Monster and reward.
(3) A thief in D&D is the character who uses stealth, opens locks and disarms traps.

Monday, January 14, 2008

A Shark's Tale

Something different this week. An online group I'm in is trying to put together an anthology of new stories about old comic book characters. I submitted this one. When I realized that it had some of the mythological and philosophical elements we discuss on the blog, plus a dash of Richard Bach, I decided to post the story here.

This is a first draft, and there's no assurance the project will get off the ground. The characters are in the public domain as far as I know.

So, for your consideration, "A SHARK'S TALE" starring The Shark and the Magician from Mars:

He awoke with a shudder, coughing and spitting up salty water.

"Sit up, son," rumbled a rough-hewn man's voice. "You'll drown yourself all over again."

At the same time he felt gentle palms resting on his bare shoulder and the back of his neck where water ran down from his wet hair. He was lifted gently to a sitting position. There was a sudden pain in his right side. A hand - definitely not one of the soft ones that had helped him up - pounded his back heavily and he coughed again, but no more of the ocean poured out.

He noticed his nakedness except for a pair of latex trunks. "Where's my wetsuit?"

"Had to remove it," the man's voice said. "Too much blood."

"It was necessary, in order to treat the wound." The second voice was a woman's, calm, confident, reassuring. Just listening to her, even before her words sank in, made him feel like everything was all right.

He looked up for the first time. The man leaning over him was also in swim trunks, but he did wear one other thing. A mask. A freaking mask. It was a silly thing to have on in the middle of springtime, nowhere near Hallowe'en even if they celebrated it in this country. Somehow, though, it didn't look silly on him. It was somehow impressive, like an aquatic Lone Ranger. The man had a full, though not long, beard shot through with iron grey.

When he turned to look at the woman beside him his side flared in pain.

"Ahhh! Hell! What was that?" He leaned to take the weight off his side. "What took a bite out of me?"

"Tuna fisherman," the masked man said with a slight smile.

Zak paused. Memory lost to the blur of pain swam back. Yeah. The fishing boats. We were ... where's the rest of us? Fear left his tongue suddenly dry. "Haddie ... Karl ... Allie ... "

"We'll take care of them," the man said. "We brought you here because you needed treatment and ... we have something to tell you. You took a spear in the side."

He sensed more than felt the woman's light touch on his shoulder. He turned just his head this time to protect the side that hurt.

" ... because you stayed to defend your friends," she told him. "It was a very noble thing to do."

He didn't quite register her words because her face had caught him from the moment he saw her. She was beautiful in earthy and unearthly ways at once. Her dress was exotic.

"Are you all right, Zak?"

"Hah!" came from the masked man. "She still doesn't know the effect she has on people. Especially boy people. Sorry, son."

The use of his name had snapped Zak out of it. "How do you - no, who are you people?"

"Ever hear of The Shark?" the man asked in a slightly offended tone.

"You're The Shark," Zak stated with a yeah-right inflection. "The Shark is a myth, a seagoing urban legend."

The man shook his head ruefully. "I wasn't a legend during the war. A mystery man, sure, but everybody who read the papers or watched the newsreels knew about me. The enemy sure knew The Shark! I messed up Nazi and Japanese naval plans pretty good."

"The Shark. Is real."

"Course, I've been under a lower profile since then. Myths tend to fade when people stop believing. There's been a distinct lack of mad scientists and Martian invasions these days, and the latest war ... let's just say deserts aren't my area of operations." The Shark - against his stubborn will, Zak was starting to accept him as that - paused in what seemed like a haze of nostalgia. "But I keep busy. There's still crime on the seas, pirates, smugglers, whatnot. And shipwrecks and disasters. I was in New Orleans helping survivors, but I got a lot of dirty looks because I hadn't averted Katrina. Some even blamed me for her."

"Huh," Zak responded. "Even The Shark can't be everywhere." He continued to amaze himself, but somehow there was no doubt left in him that this man was The Shark. The freaking Shark!

He turned carefully to the woman, who now knelt beside him. "And who's she - Super Ann?"

"She's our Martian invader," The Shark rapped, with only a glint in his masked eyes betraying his humor. "They make 'em cuter these days."

"Shark!" the woman reprimanded. To Zak, "I should heal you now."

Zak glanced at the red-soaked dressing on his side. The red was deepening, and he felt dizzy. The pain was like fire when he shifted even slightly.

The woman was looking calmly at the wound. She didn't do much, just sort of waved her hands at it. Zak couldn't help staring at that amazing face and form, so intent on her that he didn't even feel the pain ... No. Wait. He DIDN'T feel any pain. It was gone and he barely even remembered it. He looked down and saw his own intact, bare flank.

"The dressing's gone," he murmured. He seemed more surprised at that than the raw, bloody wound being completely healed.

"I'm not a Martian invader," the woman said with tolearnt amusement. "You probably don't know me, my career on Earth was even shorter than The Shark's. I was the Magician from Mars ... ?"

Zak gave her a blank look. She laughed.

"Never heard of me, huh? I had to return to Mars in the early forties. Trouble with the green Martians. My sister was instigating again. I had to enlist the aid of my ... " Her face lit in a radiant grin. " ... finny friend here; he'd fought green Martians on earth before."

Zak looked even blanker after the explanation. "Your sister is a green Martian? You're not green. Unless that's 'green' as in ecologically friendly, am I babbling?"

"Oh, no ... There are two species on Mars, not just one human race with minor differences like on Earth. The greens are a whole different branch of evolution. They tried to invade Earth in the forties, but The Shark stopped them. My sister, who goes by The Hood, was a revolutionary among the human Martians. She tried to enlist the greens to her cause. Am I going too fast for you?"

The Martian woman paused. Zak was trying his best to take all this in.

"I was born Jane Gem35. My father was Martian and my mother was Earth human. Somehow their combination of genes plus exposure to a certain ray gave me the ability to ... alter reality. Like magic. I put down my sister's plans on Mars, then visited Earth and helped in your World War II. When she returned from the 'dead' and joined with the greens I went back."

Zak looked from The Shark to the Magician from Mars. "Wait, wait! There's no life on Mars. The Mariner probes - "

Jane smiled. "Alter reality?"

"Oh. Yeah. So, the greens are evil?"

"No ... oo ... " the Magician replied softly. "Most greens and humans are decent, peaceful people. As with certain groups like your Muslims on Earth, a few crazy radicals give them a bad name. The worst thing such zealots do is not their acts of violence, but the hatred they brew among peoples who would otherwise be friends. But we've settled all that since the forties: Mars is at peace now."

Zak was rubbing his soggy hair, feeling his scalp for bumps. Nothing. Maybe he wasn't suffering from a concussion.

Okay. This was real. But there were other realities too. Nasty ones.

"Haddie ... my friends," he grated. "They ambushed us. Spear guns and hooks! They were going to kill us."

"You were protesting the slaughter of dolphins," The Shark said.

"Peacefully," Zak amended. "We were unarmed."

"Of course," the Magician from Mars said levelly. "And you were doing more good than you know. Dolphins are as sentient as we are! But to the fishermen they are dumb animals, and their livelihood is in their catch."

"They shouldn't be allowed to kill sentient beings!" Zak interrupted. "Liveelihood or no livelihood."

"We're with you," The Shark said, arms folded over his chest. "Protector of the seas and all. The fishing crews were trying to scare your people off. Once it gets out of hand, violence likes to escalate. I don't know what set if off, but you took the first spear."

Zak looked shocked.

"When you spouted blood and fell into the sea ... well, they're rough men and they won't want witnesses."

"Did they - ?"

The Shark cut him off grimly. "Nobody did anything since you disappeared, thanks to Jane."

"I suspended time," the Magician said almost in embarassment. "But when I let it go again, they'll try to silence them."

"But you're gonna save them, right?"

"No," said The Shark.

"You are," said the Magician from Mars.

Zak was getting tons of experience practicing his blank stare.

"Tell him!"

The Shark unfolded his powerful arms. "I'm getting old. Did you ever hear how I became The Shark?"

At Zak's head shake he went on.

"There's been a Shark since there were oceans. Neptune selected the first one. Since then - "

"Neptune," Zak stated.

"Neptune." The Shark nodded. "Since then when a Shark is ready to retire, he assumes the role of Neptune and picks the next Shark. I got selected in 1939 and I've been going since then. Fighting Martians, sea monsters, looney scientists, dictators, pirates, disasters. I'm ready to neptune out."

"Oh, great," Zak muttered. "And I'm the Chosen One. The Buffy of the Seven Seas."

It was the Martian woman's turn to try on a blank gaze.

"Cultural quip," The shark said wryly. Back to Zak, "We picked you because you are already started. You love the seas. You fight against the polluters and slaughterers of sea life."

"But not wearing a mask and ... and swim trunks, and bashing heads! I'm not exactly a man of action."

"No," mused The Shark. "You are a man of learning. You know science and technology and legalese, and you have thev guts to take on the people who'd spill them for you. The big monsters these days are the pig-headed politicians and the greedy conglomerates that'd despoil the seas, and the world, for profit."

"Don't rant," shushed the Magician from Mars. To Zak, "That makes you the perfect Shark."

"With a few super powers tossed in," The Shark grinned.

Zak stared sharply at him. "Super powers like what?"

"Your basic defender of the deep tricks. Breathing under water of course. Strength, super-fast swimming, commanding sea creatures, teleporting from one body of water to another."

"You're kidding."

"Nope. All you leave behind is a little puddle of water."

Zak shook his head in disbelief, not at what The Shark said but at the ease with which he was accepting it.

"So are we gonna rescue my friends now or what?"

"I thought we'd take you to the Shark's Teeth - "

"Shark's Teeth."

"Your new domain, son. Give you a few months' training, then Jane'll let time go, you teleport in and - "

"Hold it. Training, that's fine, super powers good too, the whole Shark gig sounds decent, but how am I supposed to concentrate on training when my friends are in danger?"

"Time is stopped!" The Shark repeated, exasperated. "You could train for years and they'd still be safe until she sets it in motion again."

"Shark," the Magician soothed. "He's right. We can't expect him to focus until he knows his friends are safe." She looked at Zak. "I can send you to them now. Are you ready?"

"Doesn't matter!" Zak rapped. "Do it."

"I will. But not as Zak." She raised an arm in his direction.

Zak didn't feel a thing, but when he looked down he saw himself wearing the costume of The Shark. He lifted his hands, felt the blue mask across his face. He did seem stronger, more powerful. He stared at his hand, flexing his fingers. They were webbed.

"I'm going to transport you now," the Magician warned. "Shark and I will teleport ourselves. Go!"

And Zak saw blue ocean over his head and darker blue below him. He had no difficulty breathing. He hurled himself at the surface above and came bursting out of the sea in a spout of water, to the scene he last remembered.

Twilight. Haddie, Karl and Allie were on a slime-slick rocky point above a sudden fall to the sea. A motley mob armed with spearguns, pikes hooks and scowls faced them. The fishermen had come around the point on some tall rocks that jutted from the deep below them.

Everybody's eyes turned to the sudden sound from the sea. The wave from zak's appearance washed them with salt spray. One of the fishing crew pointed a shaky arm at him and yelled, "Oceaan duivel!"

Zak astounded himself by plummeting down onto the rocks in front of the fishermen and landing on his feet without losing his balance.

"Back off," he said calmly. "There's no need for violence. The guy you hit with the spear is all right and he's not going to be pressing charges."

The mob roiled in anger and confusion.

He heard Karl yell, "They don't understand you!"

"I can tell them!" Allie cut in. She shouted something that sounded like gibberish to Zak, but he remembered that she knew the local language.

Her words didn't seem to impress the seamen. They waved or aimed their weapons. Zak tensed. He fixed his gaze on the angry fishermen and noticed something in the water beyond them.

Fins. Real shark fins. The fishermen were on a lower strand of rocks that the sea water lapped against. The sharks circled just beyond the rocks. Zak wondered. He couldn't summon sharks. Yet. The Shark and the Magician from Mars must be around here someplace.

"They may not understand us," he said over his shoulder. "But they'll understand them." He pointed behind the mob's backs.

Yells of terror and anger erupted from the men. The rocks trailed back away from Zak and his group into shallows and then sandy shore, and the fishermen scrambled for it.

They halted on the safety of the sand and threw vile looks and curses back at him. Then they bran, vanishing around the rock precipce.

Allie retained enough composure to yell, "Where's Zak? Who are you?"

"Zak's fine. He'll be away for a while. I ... had to take him to a treatment center, he'll contact you when he's able."

"But who are you?" Karl demanded.

Zak wished he had a silver bullet or a shark's tooth to hand them. "You ever hear of The Shark?"

"The Shark? The folk hero from the forties?" Karl answered.

"No!" Haddie and Allie replied almost in unison.

Zak tensed himself to dive. He waved a half salute at the group and said, "You will."

He hit the sea feeling more at peace than ever in the green-blue depths. Glancing about on a whim he saw The Shark swimming powerfully at his right side and the Magician from Mars encased in a transparent shimmering sphere to his left.

The Sharks Teeth turned out to be a series of interlocking underocean caverns where Sharks were trained and based. They emerged into dry air inside the caves.

"You two are dripping," the Magician frowned. She waved her arm and they were dry.

The Shark looked different. He no longer wore the blue mask but a longer whiter beard and red trunks.

He's Neptune now, Zak thought. God help us, this is all real. He's not The Shark any more, I am.

I'm the freaking Shark.

"Let me get this straight, um, Neptune. You're going to train me to turn into a puddle?"

Neptune laughed. "Takes practice, son. Lots of practice."

Zak looked at the Magician. She was so beautiful but, "Aren't you his age?" he asked. "You look, what, eighteen? Twenty?"

She smiled a little wickedly. "Magic," she smiled.

"How do you do it? Reset reality? Can you train me to do that?"

"I'm afraid not. It's partly in my mixed Earth-Martian DNA. But it's also spomething that your Hindu holy men understand, and your quantum physicists are beginning to. It has to be learned early, before it's too late."

"Too late?"

"Yes." The Magician from Mars sent him another mysterious smile. "Reality can be made and unmade, but you have to start doing the impossible before they tell you it's not possible."

Monday, January 7, 2008

The Stuff Heroes Are Made Of

"I based Superman on Samson and Hercules and every other strong man I ever heard of." ~ Jerry Seigel

"Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power... The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman." ~Dr William Moulton Marsten

“As far as I am concerned, the first episode of Buffy was the beginning of my career. It was the first time I told a story from start to finish the way I wanted.” ~ Joss Whedon

Last time we discussed how stories affect people's lives. The modern mythmakers' lives affect their stories, too, in telling ways.

Superman was created by two young men in high school, Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster. Seigel was a glasses-wearing mild mannered reporter on the school newspaper. Shuster was a muscular body builder. Seigel had a crush on a girl reporter for the same paper, and her name was Lois.

There were more personal factors that shaped the Man of Steel. Both young men were sons of immigrants, so Superman was the ultimate immigrant - from another planet. His survival of dying Krypton relected the life-out-of-death motif of ancient myths. The drawings of his tiny ship issuing from the exploding planet and plunging into the round Earth where he is nutured to manhood are symbolic of seed fertilizing womb. At the same time they reflected the reality of a European homeland dying in the toils of war.

Krypton was a perfect world, a heaven in the skies. The family suffix of Superman's father Jor-el and his own Kryptonian name Kal-el sound almost angelic, like Gabriel. "El" means "of God." As mentioned in my earlier blogs, Superman's origin echoes that of Moses. Cast adrift in a basket to save his life, Moses lived a "secret identity" among the Egyptians, keeping his god-given powers secret.

The Nazis who were ravaging Europe called themselves supermen. Seigel and Shuster's hero may have been a way of thumbing their nose at that conceit, like saying, "You're no better than us! We're all supermen under our hats and glasses."

Seigel's father was fatally shot in a robbery, so the idea of a bulletproof man must have been a powerful one to him. It may also have inspired Superman's crime fighting career.

Other powers such as flying, super-speed, and x-ray vision were added later. The original Superman was simply a super-powerful man who could "only" outrun a train and leap tall buildings in a single bound. A bomb could penetrate his skin. Flying was added in the cartoons and radio series for dramatic effect, and his powers were upgraded over the years until he could survive at the sun's core and demolish whole solar systems.

Superman's opposite, Batman, was literally created by committee. Writers and artists like Bob Kane, Bill Finger and more threw in ideas from earlier iconic characters: Zorro, Robin Hood, The Bat, The Shadow, Sherlock Holmes, Craig Kennedy and Jack Armstrong (1). But they serendipitously created something more than the sum of its parts. Batman was a powerful symbol of Jungian psychology.

Bruce Wayne, living in a respectable mansion and donor to deserving charities, represented the Conscious mind, the face we all present to the world. The Batman lived in the subconscious, the Bat Cave literally underneath that facade. He was the darker, aggresive Id.

The third in comics' archetypal triumverate, Wonder Woman, was created by a psychologist. Dr William Moulton Marsten(2) wanted a hero who used love and understanding instead of violence. His wife Elizabeth said, "Fine. But make her a woman."

Where Superman and Batman were based on harder, colder science and reason, Wonder Woman was magic. The Man of Steel and the Bat relied on strength and weapons. Wonder Woman used "loving submission" to bring peace to "Man's World." She was strong enough, granted at birth the power of Hercules, wisdom of Athena, speed of Mercury and beauty of Aphrodite by those selfsame gods. She was not immune to bullets, but skillful enough to bounce them off her bracelets; she didn't fly but she was graceful enough to ride the air currents.

Wonder Woman's Amazon culture was, of course, taken from Greek mythology, but it reflected Marsten's home life as well. He lived in a polyamorous relationship with two strong women, Elizabeth and Olive. It was Olive's silver bracelets that inspired the heroine's magic ones.

Marsten said, "Give them an alluring woman stronger than themselves to submit to, and they'll be proud to become her willing slaves!" and his characters, mostly her boy friend Steve Trevor, got tied up a lot, but his "loving submission" meant that he felt the key to peace was submission of the self to a wiser, loving authority for the good of society.

Other writers told stories of how they created their heroes, some of them doubtful. Gardner Fox saw a bird fly by and snatch a twig and turned it into Hawkman swooping down to catch criminals. Bill Everett fell overboard as a Merchant Marine and was pushed back up by a wave that felt like a hand lifting him: he created Sub-mariner, prince of the deep. Carl Burgos on a hot day felt like he was burning up and came up with the Human Torch. And some of our greatest modern myths were less nobly inspired, like Tarzan whose creator realized, " ...if people were paid for writing rot such as I read in some of those magazines that I could write stories just as rotten."

The movie "The Thing from Another World" was based on the sf story "Who Goes There?" by John W Campbell. Campbell was raised by his mother who loved him and her twin sister who despised him. He literally grew up not knowing if the person he was looking at was real or an evil alien shapeshifter that looked like her.

Mary Shelley attended medical demonstrations of electricity stimulating muscle movement in corpses, and wrote FRANKENSTEIN. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle based Sherlock Holmes on his deductive abilities of early forensics specialist Dr Joseph Bell. Doyle worked as Bell's clerk, transcribing his affairs as Dr Watson did Holmes'.

Joss Whedon didn't like the way women were portrayed as victims in slasher and horror movies, so he took a simple cliche and reversed it. "Blonde girl walks into alley and gets killed by monster" became "blonde girl walks into alley and kills monster." From there he unfolded a whole mythology of Slayers, Watchers, demons, vampires with souls, Powers That Be and hell dimensions. Buffy the Vampire Slayer has become the iconic role model for young women that Wonder Woman was. Whedon has said about one of Buffy's inspirations, Kitty Pryde of X-MEN, "She was an adolescent girl finding out she has great power and dealing with it," which pretty much sums up BUFFY. Last week's blog has an example of how that has inspired one person.

(1) Craig Kennedy solved crimes with science and inventions in fiction, and Jack Armstrong was a sports hero and adventurer, "The All American Boy" on radio.
(2) Marsten also invented the lie detector. It would be tempting to tie that in with Wonder Woman's magic lasso that made people tell the truth, but that was a revision for the tv series. Originally her lasso just made people obey her.